PAWNEE ROCK – There wasn’t time to take shelter at Steve Morgan’s home on the west edge of Pawnee Rock, next to a field of turning wheat.
Just after his wife, Robin, received a storm warning on her cellphone Tuesday night, he glanced out of the kitchen window to see trees blowing over and flying debris heading toward his house.
Within seconds, glass was shattering as windows exploded. Steve, 56, and Robin, 55, grabbed their four dogs from the living room as rain and mud began blowing into the house. They went to a back room that remained intact.
“It’s amazing how a two-minute tornado can ruin a person’s life,” Steve Morgan said as he pulled the cord on a chainsaw Wednesday morning in preparation for cutting away the branches of an uprooted Chinese elm lying on its side in his front yard.
“It was like a bomb went off,” he said.
The tornado rolled his Kawasaki motorcycle and blew out the windows of the red Ford Focus rental they’d been using after a car accident a week ago.
“Boy, are they going to be unhappy with me,” Steve Morgan said of the rental company.
Meanwhile, as the tornado hit, rain was pouring into the house. The bay window exploded and the Morgans could hear a hissing noise from a broken gas line.
Within two minutes, it was over.
“It’s a hell of a mess,” Morgan said, surveying his front yard strewn with debris, including a picnic table mangled in the limbs of a Chinese elm.
Morgan, an employee at Larned State Hospital, took a sick day to begin the cleanup. Now he’s worried how he’ll get to work, with both the rental and his bike damaged.
The tornado warning went out at 8:03 p.m. Tuesday, according to Barton County Emergency Management Director Amy Miller. She estimated it was 13 minutes from the time the tornado warning was issued to the first damage report to 911.
Barton County Sheriff Brian Bellendir said the tornado formed just outside of the small Barton County town of Pawnee Rock, 14 miles southwest of Great Bend. It was reported on the ground for about 12 miles – tracking it to K-4 Highway just west of Hoisington.
“It was a loose tornado,” Bellendir said, estimating its width between 400 and 500 feet.
The tornado did the most damage to the northwest corner of town, said Pawnee Rock Fire Chief Heath Dill. While his house took some damage, it was nothing like the houses in Morgan’s neighborhood.
Dill and volunteer firefighter Joyce Link were walking along the street checking on residents and handing out bottled water. The sound of chainsaws could be heard in the background. While electricity had been restored to the east side of town, Dill said it would take a while for the west side because both poles and transformers were down.
By midmorning Wednesday, Dill was estimating five homes were completely damaged and 10 to 15 had sustained some damage in this town of 246 people.
Two doors east of the Morgan home, Konny Trinka, 52, and her daughter Bailey Ritchie, 17, were inundated with help from family and friends. Two front-end loaders were moving debris. Representatives from ServiceMaster were on the roof, taking measurements so they could cover the roof with tarps. Sent by her insurance company, they wanted to protect the inside of the home from the next onslaught of storms, expected today.
Mother and daughter had gone into their shelter, along with their two dogs, when they received the warning on their cellphones. The space was about 10 feet by 12 feet wide, and had a mattress that they covered themselves with.
Bailey said tornado warnings always scared her in the past. For some reason, she was not scared Tuesday night – until the tornado moved over their house. They could hear a loud, roaring sound and glass breaking.
“We were holding on to each other,” Bailey said.
“I kept telling her everything was going to be OK, and I was praying that it was going to be,” Trinka said.
Volunteers on hand
Many people were on hand to help Wednesday morning. Miller suggested sightseers stay away, but they could volunteer to help.
Katie Fitzsimmons, who lives in rural Barton County, was carrying large garbage bags and helping wherever she was needed.
“I’m pulling stuff to the curb,” Fitzsimmons said.
Judy Foster, with the Central Western Division of the American Red Cross, was also going door-to-door letting people know she had sandwiches and snacks.
“People who lost homes are trying to find out what they need,” Miller said. “We are concerned because there are power lines down around the county.”
Tuesday night’s storm reminded Miller of the tornadoes 10 years ago that hit Greensburg, Edwards County and Barton County. Two days later, more storms struck. That’s why it was important to get the houses closed up before more severe weather moves in today, when strong winds, hail and more tornadoes are possible west of a line from Great Bend to Wellington.
Chance Hayes, a meteorologist with Wichita’s National Weather Service office, was in Barton County Wednesday to assess the damage and determine the rating of the Pawnee/Barton county tornado. By late afternoon he had rated it an EF3 with maximum winds around 165 mph and a path length around 27 miles.
“The path length could change as we continue to look for additional damage in Barton County,” Hayes said.
For Steve Morgan, the tornado came as a surprise. He was mowing his front lawn at about 6 p.m. While it was cloudy, it didn’t look like rain.
Now, so overwhelmed with the debris that had once been his home, he wasn’t certain where to begin. For today, he told himself, he would fix the front door that had been ripped from its hinges and clean up the porch debris.
Their son, from Colorado, was on his way to offer assistance.
“I’m going to have headaches for years over this,” Morgan said.